Mention the name Boyle and Scotland in the same sentence and most people these days will think you're referring to a certain talented female amateur singer from West Lothian. Cast your mind back a few years though, or all the way to 1994, and the name meant something else to the movie going public. This was the time Danny Boyle, our lad from the rolling Lancashire hills, ventured north with flat cap in hand to make his first two films Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
Director Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge would team up time and time again but the best combined efforts are to be seen in these first two instalments of their illustrious careers. Brothers Andrew and Kevin (the latter of which not only directed the fly on the wall documentary but who also went onto direct such features as... Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland) are grandsons of the great Emeric Pressburger of Powell/Pressburger fame and whose impressive catalogue needs no introduction here. So from the outset the film was grounded with people who should have known the movie trade. Boyle had been directing television shows and made his leap with this film, taking one million pounds sterling and producing a taught thriller which even to this day, after repeated viewings, still holds its own besides the likes of the early Coen Brothers features.
The story kicks off with three young flatmates - Alex (Ewan McGregor), Juliet (Kerry Fox) and David (Christopher Eccleston) - trying to find a fourth person to share the rent. They have a spare room going to waste so why not interview people for the vacant space? A number of unlikely characters pass through the casting couch until one day Hugo (Keith Allen) impresses Juliet enough to be invited to dinner after which he is offered the room for rent.
Unfortunately Hugo dies in an apparent drug overdose. Lying there naked on his new bed, his shocked flatmates discover a million pounds hidden in a suitcase. They have the choice of informing the police or keeping the money. They decide on the latter and whilst they know the money would change their lives they perhaps never really understood how much it would do so or what directions it would take them all in.
Shallow Grave is an excellent little thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat for the full ninety minutes it's on screen. It starts with some light humour as people are interviewed for the vacancy and this introduces our three main characters quite well; it shows their imagination, their seriousness and ultimately their desire to have a little enjoyment. After all they are young, in their early twenties, no doubt just starting out on their respective careers as journalist, doctor and accountant; they have time, freedom and a desire to take as much from life as humanly possible.
When we're introduced to Hugo, we immediately think he'll play a major part in the role, and we wonder how his part will fit in and pan out with the other, slightly younger group. In almost no time though Hugo is unceremoniously laid to rest and the audience is slightly shocked. After all, in 1994 of all the faces they had perhaps seen before Keith Allen was perhaps the most known to them. To kill off your most well known figure catches the audience unaware, makes them sit up, take notice and become more involved in the film. It is something which has been done time and time again in the thriller genre with Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers being the notable ones, and which Boyle himself actually credits as some of the influences in this picture.
Boyle's staging and direction is faultless, knowing when to let the story tell itself and when to inject that little extra just to keep the viewer from thinking that this plot line is going to be a straight course from A to B. He produces a claustrophobic atmosphere as most of the action takes place within the flat itself and although their humble abode is large (and the set which was designed for it is incredibly well thought out and constructed) there is a feeling of tightness, a feeling that they are actually prisoners in their own home. What was once a light, exhilarating, enjoyable place for them to live becomes a hell of their own making. At this early juncture in his career he shows us not only what he is capable of doing but also of achieving impressive results with such a small amount of money. He has gone onto bigger things, but by no means any better, and I can honestly say that I have enjoyed the majority of what he has done since that time. Trainspotting is an incredible roller coaster ride of a film exploring one of the world's darkest subjects with a level of humour which is so black that at times it should have its own gravity well. A life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and of course now Slumdog Millionaire are all varied in their subject matter and all beautifully put together by this Northern soul.
Excellent casting is another string to this film's already impressive bow. McGregor had only a few television appearances before Shallow Grave but this and Trainspotting thrust him into the limelight and from there on in his career was a certainty. McGregor is a respected actor and one who doesn't always choose the part just because of the money on offer. Of course he has had his fair share of blockbuster movies (the Star Wars prequels certainly in the that category) but that has enabled him to look at other projects also: projects which he does not for the money but for the sake of the film itself. One of his follies of course just taking him around the globe on a motorcycle. Kerry Fox was more or less required for the project as she was a little more known than either Ewan or Christopher and Channel 4 felt a little safer with that security blanket offered to them. Christopher Eccleston has ventured into film to some degree with excellent performances in Elizabeth and The Others but many will no doubt mainly remember his time in Doctor Who or when he starred in Our Friends in the North. Both of his performances in those two television series are indeed excellent and I do wonder at times why more use is not made of his broody nature in mainstream cinema.
So, an excellent, tight thriller which nods its head to previous directing giants and to the noir genre. Taught direction, and a worthy cast with both director and actors all showing the world their talents since that time. Incredible production values for such a limited budget and a film which stands the test of time; perhaps only feeling dated due to people smoking at their desk, a rather bulky laptop and some cars on show. A good one to look back on every now and again not only to gain enjoyment from the film itself but to also see where careers have been made. Recommended.
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